Three insider secrets to a lighting portfolio that lands your dream job.


Three Insider Secrets to a stand-out portfolio


How to Become an Animator (2024)

by | Last updated Jan 17, 2024

Want to become an animator? 

It’s a fun and fulfilling career! It will allow you to turn ideas into beautiful works of art that people will enjoy and love for years to come. As an animator, you can create visuals in different fields, including film, television, gaming, education, advertising, and healthcare. It’s definitely an action-packed, exciting field that pays well and is high in demand. 

So, what does it take to become an animator? 


What is an animator? 

An animator is an artist who creates multiple images, called frames, to give the illusion of movement that supports the narrative of a scene. Back in the day, cartoons were made by drawing or painting images on transparent celluloid films. The drawn celluloid films are then photographed frame by frame, each one being shown quickly on the screen to give the illusion of movement. Old Disney cartoons were made this way.

Over the years, animators started to use animation software and computers are used to turn hand-drawn images into 2D or 3D artworks used in video games, television commercials, motion pictures, websites, and other digital platforms. Contemporary cartoons are made this way. 

Animation artists typically specialize in a specific media. They may focus on a particular area of that media, such as character design, environment design, background design, motion capture, texturing, visual effects, object modeling, lighting, or scene assembly.

Animation job examples

  • 2D animator
  • 3D animator
  • Lighting artist
  • Visual Effects Animator
  • Senior Graphic Animator
  • Character Animator
  • Graphics Animator
  • 3D Artist
  • Animation Designer
  • Graphic Effects Supervisor
  • Forensic Animator
  • Key Frame Animator
  • Image Editor
  • Modeler
  • Texture Artist
  • Layout Artist
  • Lighting Artist
  • Storyboard Artist
  • Background Artist
  • Clean-Up Artist
  • Rigging Artist
  • Rendering Artist
  • Digital Ink and Paint Artist

How hard is it to become an animator?

Top skills of an animator:

  • Creative
  • Artistic eye
  • A knack for storytelling
  • Attention to detail
  • Excellent time management skills
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Ability to meet tight deadlines
  • Ability to learn different tools

You’ll need formal training to become an animator because the job is more than just about sketching; you’ll need to master different software application tools and specialize in specific areas of animation to stay competitive. 

While being an animator requires an education, there’s no need to take the traditional route of earning a bachelor’s degree and studying for 4 years. The thing is, you can become a successful animator without a degree. 

Taking an online course is the more affordable and flexible option for anyone dreaming of becoming an animator. You can learn at your own pace, take classes anytime and anywhere, and even specialize in specific fields of 3D animation. 

Do animators get paid well?

You bet! One of the reasons why this is such a coveted job is that animators get paid top dollars for their talent and skills. On average, animators earn about  $70,530 to $74,000 a year. The salary depends on an animator’s experience, skills, and location. Top-level animators and art directors typically have a six-figure salary. Often, the yearly wage includes transport, housing, and other benefits. 

How to become an animator without a degree 

If animation is your passion, but you don’t have the time or resources to earn a bachelor’s degree, you can become one without a degree. Competition is stiff in the animation and visual effects industries, but if you have an extensive animation background through freelancing, you can earn top dollars doing what you love!

Self-teaching: You can teach yourself about the topics within animation that you’d like to learn. You can also watch free how-to videos on YouTube or Vimeo then invest in animation software tools. 

Sign up for an online course: Take your journey to become a successful animator up a notch by signing up for an online course. This is an excellent way to train your artistic eye, learn different creative concepts, and hone your technical skills.

At the Academy of Animated Art, we offer a range of online animation courses to help you get the best start in the industry. 

Build your portfolio: Not all studios require a degree when hiring an animator, but they will require a portfolio and demo reel. A portfolio demonstrates your competence in a range of critical areas such as concept sketching, drawing, character design, lighting, and storyboard design. It’s important to document all the projects you were involved in, your experiences, technical skills, and digital painting artworks. 

Your portfolio could include concept art, sketchbook work, digital and traditional artwork, and any medium demonstrating your creative flair and passion for the arts.

Create a demo reel: This is a short recording of your BEST work. Fillers have no room in a demo reel, and the best ones should always be presented at the beginning of the demo reel. If you’re just starting out, here’s how to create a standout demo reel.

What kind of education is required to be an animator?

No formal education is required. You can take the traditional route – college – or take a course, like our own courses. 

Lighting For Animation Course Bundle: Been dreaming of becoming a light artist? We’ve developed a proven system that will help bag your dream job of becoming a light artist in a top studio… even with zero experience. Take this comprehensive online course, and in less than a year, you’ll be changing your career for the better, doing the thing that you love while getting paid top dollars. 

This course is designed to take you from where you are today to a job lighting animated films in less than a year. It’s a great workshop to try if you are an artist who wants to switch between jobs or a seasoned artist who wants to try something different. After this course, you’ll learn how to: 

  • sculpt visual shaping with light
  • utilize color and shadow to create mood
  • design lights to focus the viewer’s eye
  • understand CG lights and their attributes
  • dissect and leverage reference images
  • light and render using Pixar’s Renderman

Click here to register

Character Lighting For Animated Films: The animation industry is a character-driven business. As an artist, you have to demonstrate your ability to light a character well to get your foot in the door. The Character Lighting for Animated Films covers all aspects of character lighting, including:

  • Creating shaping
  • Hero color
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Getting a character to read off a background
  • Lighting a villain
  • Lighting characters correctly for a killer demo reel

… and if you’ve got no character to light, we’ll give you one! The course includes a fully rigged character + background plates for you to practice on and put on your demo reel.

Click here to register

Intro to Maya Workshop: Autodesk Maya is a computer graphics application used to build characters, objects, and entire worlds. It offers comprehensive tools for animating scenes for movies, animation, commercials, video games, architectural rendering, medical imaging, and VR. It is industry-standard software, and by mastering Maya, you’ll be able to pick up other software applications and achieve a completely different level of success in the animation industry. By enrolling in our Intro to Maya workshop, you’ll learn how to:

  • Build characters and environments
  • Animate objects and characters
  • Create materials and shaders
  • Generate fur and cloth effects
  • Render realistic, visually stunning images

Click here to register

Arnold For Maya Workshop: What do blockbuster movies like Gravity, Pacific Rim, Blade Runner 2049, and the Marvel franchise have in common? These films were made using Arnold for Maya, a rendering powerhouse boasting an advanced Monte Carlo ray tracer that meets the “demands of feature-length animation and visual effects.” 

This renderer improves the photo quality of rendered images, allowing you to achieve photorealistic results. It’s fully programmable and uses geometry instancing to render trillions of visible polygons while maximizing the amount of memory. 

By enrolling in our Arnold For Maya Workshop, you’ll learn how to maximize every button, every slider, and every tool for:

  • Ray sampling
  • Ray depth
  • Motion blur
  • Light render settings
  • System settings
  • Environment

Click here to register 

Katana Workshop: Master Katana, the industry-standard Lighting and LookDev tool by the Foundry! This software simplifies the management of assets, materials, shaders, and output files to make an artist’s life easier. Conducted by Abel Vargas, our Katana workshop will help you wield this powerful tool to its fullest. By the end of the course, you’ll know how to work with multiple shots, frames, assets, and other variations from within one Katana project file simultaneously. 

Click here to register

RedShift Workshop: This is the complete guide to RedShift, a GPU-based render engine designed to meet the specific demands of contemporary high-end production rendering. This tool comes with a full suite of powerful features, and we’ll teach you how to maximize each one with this workshop! The Academy of Animated Art has teamed up with Dreamworks Lighting Artist Shane Sternstein for this comprehensive Redshift workshop.

Click here to register

Introduction to the Unreal Engine Workshop: Unreal is a render engine that harnesses the power of NVIDIA’s RTX graphics and Microsoft’s DirectX Raytracing (DXR) framework so you can create authentic effects that add realism to your scene. This render engine makes it easy for artists to create visually stunning images, and we’ll teach you how to make the most out of Unreal! This workshop is conducted by Jordan Jenkins, a UK-based lighting artist for Blue Zoo Animation Studio.

Click here to register

Octane Workshop: Master the most dynamic renderer in the world, OTOY Octane! This is the world’s first and fastest unbiased, spectrally correct GPU-based render engine. Enjoy the unrivaled speed and quality that Octane has to offer by mastering its many tools and features. This workshop is conducted by Matt Wilson, a lead lighting artist with almost 20 years of experience in the industry.  

Click here to register

How long does it take to become an animator?

If you’re taking the traditional route, it will take about 4 years to earn a bachelor’s degree and become an animator. If you’re entirely self-taught, it might take longer before you’re ready to accept projects because you’ll be learning everything about the craft and the tools on your own. 

If you want to become an animator in the fastest time possible, you can enroll in an online course. In less than a year, you can then start accepting projects. Build a killer demo reel (we’ll teach you how to do that too!), and in just a few months, you could bag your first job as an animator at a top studio.

How to become an animator for Disney, Pixar, and other big studios 

Dreaming of being an animator at a top studio like Disney, Pixar, Sony Animation Pictures, and other big studios? It’s a fascinating career that will take you places. Plus, nothing beats the feeling of seeing the concepts you’ve worked so hard turn to life and being loved by other people. Here is a step by step guide to anyone who’s been dreaming of one day becoming an animator: 

Step 1: Get a formal training

You have two choices: you can either go to school and earn a bachelor’s degree or sign up for an online course. If you have all the time in the world, then going to school for formal training in animation is your best bet. But, this route is expensive and takes years to complete. Also, not all schools provide specialized courses on specific areas of the job.

If you’re switching careers, you’re a professional who wants to specialize in specific animation fields, or you simply don’t have the time and/or money to earn a bachelor’s degree, the better choice would be to sign up for an online course. 

The kind of animation course to take online will depend on your individual career goals, prior education, and existing skills. Here at the Academy of Animated Art, we offer a diverse range of non-degree programs and technical workshops that’ll give you hands-on practice on industry techs as you learn different artistic concepts and develop your technical skills.

Step 2: Develop your skills

There is so much to learn in 3D animation, and you will need time to develop your artistic eye and technical skills. You’ll start by building foundational art skills, learning the basics of different animation and editing software.

You’ll need the training to develop acting and observational skills, so you’ll understand how real people and objects move in real life and apply what you’ve learned into a character’s body language or an object’s movements in a computer-generated environment. Part of your training is recreating specific qualities and emotions in every character to support and enhance the scene’s narrative. 

Animators work in teams, and you’ll need to learn how to collaborate with different people, balance your time well to meet deadlines, and managing critiques and feedbacks to do your job well. Animators, no matter how good they are, never stop learning. Your instructors will push you to become better at what you do and ultimately bag your dream job. 

Step 3: Create a KILLER demo reel

The animation and visual effects industry is competitive, so standing out is vital to getting your foot in the door. If you’re a beginner, you have to practice as often as possible and document your work with an online portfolio. We highly recommend posting your portfolio online so that it’s easier for hiring managers to access it. 

According to Pixar, your demo reel should comprise five parts. These are: 

  • Cover Letter
  • Resume
  • Demo Reel
  • Demo Reel Breakdown
  • Online Application

As for creating the demo reel itself, it should have the following 

  • Your contact details
  • Your best work
  • Demo Reel breakdown (DRB)

Your demo reel should feature 3 to 5 pieces of your best work, with the strongest pieces at the beginning to show a strong performance. Never use fillers and keep the length to 2 to 3 minutes (max). 

Always update your demo reel with your latest and strongest work. Check the contact section, be sure that all the links are working. And if you really want your demo reel to stand out, you need to get a copy of our free ebook, Three Expert Insider Secrets for a Successful Demo Reel. Our co-founders, Mike Tanzillo and Jasmine Katatikarn wrote this ebook and revealed the insider tips to creating a standout demo reel.

Step 4: Get work experience

Signing up for internships and taking freelancing jobs while you’re still learning to become an animator will help you gain relevant experience in your chosen field and perhaps, connect with current industry professionals. This goes regardless if you’re taking a 4-year bachelor’s degree or completing an online course. 

After graduating, you’re ready to find a full-time job and likely start in an entry-level position. Even if you have a full-time job as an animator, you can still squeeze in some time to do freelance gigs. All the job experiences you earn from your full-time and freelancing jobs will help build your skills and expand your portfolio. 

Step 5: Stay Competitive

There are so many aspects of animation to learn about; the learning never stops once you’ve become an animator. You can learn new skills, master different software programs, or specialize in various areas of animation. To stay competitive, we suggest signing up for different tech courses to further your career. 

Over to you!

It’s a long road to becoming an animator when you’re just starting out, but everybody has to stand somewhere. With these tips, you’re well on your way to achieving your dream of being an animator. 


Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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